Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Human League

One of the regrettable sports clichés to which I’ve grown the numbest would have to be “human highlight reel”, especially during these last two years of witnessing USC tailback Reggie Bush run roughshod around almost everything in his way. It’s no accident. Great athletes, for better or worse, find their life’s work distilled into snippets of film, moments of grace and impossibility bookended by close-ups of their protagonist waving to his adoring faithful and walking off the field in exalted resignation. Sport has always been as much theater as athletic showcase; as Bill Shakespeare once put it, “They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts.” Heroism arrives by varieties and degrees, as does decrepitude; Prince Hal becomes Henry V, and perhaps an early – or at least timely - departure is all that stands in the way of one’s descent into incapacity and irrelevance. Falstaff, for all we know, simply hung around too long.

I’ve often wondered how my own highlight reel might appear. Would I look handsome, dashing, fluid under the microscope of film? My first temptation is to imagine my most glorious (and vainglorious) moments from Carmel Valley mud football immortalized onscreen: flattening five or six people en route to a long touchdown run up the middle, or perhaps flying off a corner blitz to notch a sack on fourth-and-long. I think I know what would happen, however. The camera, rather than rendering us more powerful, begs attention to our myriad failings. You never look as fast as you feel – in fact, you rarely are as fast as you feel. In that sense, the stopwatch is merely a more esoteric sort of camera. For most people, the truly magical moments become mundane when stepping out of their skins and into the nosebleed seats of objectivity. Why is it that so many would rather watch professional sports than their own unfolding lives? Safety in numbers, I suppose – mass agreement that something is worth exercising not only attention, but passion as well.

Drifting away from my athletic fantasies, and recognizing that I am, at best, a sandlot hero, I ponder expanding my definition of the highlight reel. It strikes me that romance might provide an equally fitting arena for the heroic and spectacular, while playing to a somewhat fairer audience. Here, too, I have the consolation of any number or scenes of my choosing. I can see myself now, transfixed by momentary passions into so many time capsules. I might be making an extravagant and unexpected gift, or composing the sort of sonnet that comes along only once or twice an attachment. I could offer up a rippling shoulder on which to take comfort, or say, believably, that something is OK that clearly isn’t. Whether at my most stoic or most quixotic, it’s an image that’s as practiced as it is conjured up for the climactic scenes that cry out for such material. And, inevitably, somebody is going to say “You’re too serious”, or “It happened too suddenly” or “Her butt’s too big anyway.” And you – if you’re me, anyway – mutter “Philistines!”, completely missing this sad fact: aesthetics are only half the story.

I’ve always been a great believer in the aesthetic and narrative value of life. I like gaudy entrances, drawn-out climaxes, poignant exits, and all the cringing, breath-holding, and uproarious laughter in between. Forgetting these things, though (to the extent we can), it might be wise to re-examine the perception of something as simple as sports. In many cases – basketball being a prime example – we discover that we have lost in precious fundamentals what we have gained in momentary flashes of excitement. Look askance at a game of football, for instance, and you’ll see that, as often as not, it’s the solid, unspectacular movements, in totality, that win the game. While we might like to think of the three, four, and five-yard pickups as simply filling in the blanks between the Big Plays, they are frequently the routine, and the spectacular the interruption. Woody Allen remarked, famously, that ninety percent of success is just showing up. His glibness, however, belies the fact that there may be considerable honor in doing so, when taking into account the thousand temptations not to. Similarly, I recall a musical number from a Berenstain Bears animated Valentine’s special I watched in 1987, which declared that “sometimes love is just being there”. And, as anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you, being there can be everything.

Perhaps our perspective errs not in the concept of the human highlight reel, but where we place the emphasis. Perhaps what would prove most morally instructive would not be a human highlight reel, but rather a human highlight reel. These are scenes that scarcely rate a mention, and yet they fairly populate our days. In one, you might angle carefully around a car parked in the middle of the road with its flashers on, elegantly anticipating the reaction of the oncoming traffic. In another, a wry joke might distract your distraught friend just long enough to reclaim his day. In the midst of your bathtime reverie, you find you have dispensed just enough body wash to create a satisfying lather, while judiciously avoiding great excess. Your favorite song from high school comes on the radio unexpectedly, and, against all expectations, you choke up. And, unfailingly, you start to feel like a person again.

Feeling like a person is dependent on many different factors, some more, some less essential than one’s choice of bubble bath. We tend to focus on the visible parts of the spectrum, leaving on either side the invisible elements of our existence. On one side are the meaningless things that we know to be meaningless. On the other are the sobering thoughts. Nature has had, for instance, about six billion years to screw things up, and yet here we are. Your body requires twelve million complex chemical reactions to correctly happen every second, and yet happen they do, for the time being. If your life seems to be lacking at all in excitement, take comfort. Thus far, you are the highlight of the evolutionary process. Now, with your permission, I'm going to sit back and enjoy.